CORVALLIS - Hundreds of poplar trees at Oregon State University that were being field tested in scientific research projects, some of which were genetically engineered, were cut down or killed earlier this week.

A representative of a group called GenetiX Alert, which works with anti-genetic engineering organizations, said they received a communication Thursday from a group claiming to be "concerned OSU students and alumni" who took responsibility for the act of vandalism. The Oregon State Police are investigating the incidents.

The destroyed trees, at sites near Corvallis, were mostly part of the research program of Steven Strauss, a professor of forest science at OSU. Strauss said that they were a mixture of trees that were genetically engineered and those produced with conventional hybrid breeding techniques. At one site, nearly 500 one-year-old trees were cut down and others were girdled, including 62 several-year-old trees that were conventional hybrids and 30 that were transgenic trees. At another site, between 100 and 200 young trees, a mixture of conventional hybrids and transgenic, were damaged or cut down.

About 70 trees in a research plot at an OSU Agricultural Experiment Station in Klamath Falls, which were conventional hybrid trees, were also destroyed. The trees were part of a different research project.

"The damage to our research program is actually fairly modest," Strauss said of the Corvallis projects. "Most of the older trees had already provided the data we needed and were ready to be removed. The research was coming along quite well and the results are very promising."

Strauss and his research team were mostly studying ways to control flowering, fertility and cross pollination with this research project. The ultimate goal is to develop hybrid poplar trees, through genetic engineering or other techniques, which can be used in an outdoor environment without newly introduced traits being passed to wild plants when this poses environmental concerns. Some studies also related to herbicide resistance, which they believe can improve economic efficiency of weed management while providing environmental benefits via reduced tillage and use of the most environmentally benign herbicides.

Hybrid poplars, which include cottonwood and aspen trees, are increasingly being used in plantation agriculture to take advantage of their extraordinarily fast growth characteristics. They provide sources of timber as an alternative to wild forests.

Plantations have been recognized by several leading environmental organizations as being a valuable way to take the pressure off of native forests while still meeting society's need for pulp and other wood products, Strauss said.

"Our research was essentially being done with a goal of environmental protection," Strauss said. "That's what makes the actions of these vandals difficult to understand and impossible to accept."

The research program and the field tests being conducted had been reviewed and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Independent scientists had determined that the tests would be both useful and safe. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, USDA, EPA, U.S. Department of Energy and private industry.

Strauss is director of the Tree Genetic Engineering Research Cooperative at OSU, a collaboration of academia, government agencies and private industry working to bring some of the advances in genetic engineering to modern forestry. Possible goals of poplar genetic engineering include developing trees that grow faster; produce wood that is less costly and less environmentally harmful to process into paper, energy and wood products; remove pollutants from soil; allow the controlled use of the most desirable herbicides - or are designed to prevent gene flow into other plant species.

Hybrid poplar trees - as well as other intensively managed species such as pines, firs and eucalypts - hold great promise to meet the world's demand for pulp, timber and other wood products in an environmentally benign way without having to rely so heavily on natural forests, Strauss said. Some poplar species are produced almost like agricultural crops and can grow up to five feet per year, and have become the basis for a blossoming industry both in the United States and around the world.

OSU is a state and national leader in fundamental and applied research on biotechnology. In one recent year, about 90 faculty from six colleges and more than 17 departments were doing gene research. Members of the OSU Center for Gene Research and Biotechnology held more than $50 million in long-term grants, primarily from state and federal agencies, for studies that address a broad range of issues in biomedicine, agriculture, animal science, toxicology, disease prevention and other topics.

Terri Lomax, director of the OSU Program for the Analysis of Biotechnology Issues, says that like any new technology, genetic engineering has the potential to provide important benefits or can also be misused. The emphasis at OSU is in assessing and averting potential risks associated with biotechnology.

"As a land grant university, our responsibility is to make sure that this technology is used responsibly and for the best interests of the public," Lomax said. "We must be able to work with these plants to be able to assess and manage possible risks and capitalize on the potentially immense benefits these techniques may provide."

For example, crop plants that have been genetically engineered to make them resistant to insect damage have already reduced pesticide spraying in the U.S. by millions of tons per year, Lomax said.

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Steve Strauss, 541-737-6578